Gathering Clouds, Chapter 14

  • Chapter 14





                          The Imperial in the coat – Ambarro had taken to calling him Coattails in his head – was in quite the hurry. He almost lost him a couple of times as he ducked into a series of back alleys. Luckily, the rich scent of Moon Sugar clung to him like honey. He’d sniffed it in raw form once before, out of curiosity, in Uncle Jorra’s glass garden. Jorra had been beside himself with rage when he found out, though he’d also decided that the after-effects were more than enough punishment. The sugarcane-like plant extract had left him dizzy and nauseous for an entire day.


                    Can’t imagine why people actually want to breathe it, he thought, shuddering at the memory.


                    He was jolted back to reality as Coattails walked into a particularly narrow alleyway. Hesitating, he followed him in, his hackles beginning to rise as he noted a change in the man’s pace. Maybe I shouldn’t have followed him in.


                    Sure enough, Coattails whirled around to glower at him, ‘Well, what do you want, cat?’


                    Play it dumb, play it dumb…


                    For some reason a response from Harrow popped into his head.


                    Well, that shouldn’t prove too difficult for you, should it, dunce?


                    You be quiet, you’re not even here. Now where was I? Oh yes, play dumb.


                    Ambarro stared at Coattails as he walked straight past him, adopting an expression of bewilderment. Unfortunately, the entirety of his acting talent amounted to making funny faces in class. The grimace he forced onto his face was more akin to that of a troll with particularly painful diarrhoea than that of a mildly puzzled child.


                    ‘What?’ Coattails was more confused by this than he ever would have been by an actual innocent passer-by. When he came to his senses, the black-furred youngster was gone.


                    He would’ve stood there scratching his head for a whole hour if he didn’t have a schedule to catch. He checked around the alley corners to make sure, then continued on his path.


                    Twenty feet above him, Ambarro balanced himself on the sandstone windowsill he was hanging off of. From the side, he looked like a piece of laundry hung out to dry. Shifting his grip, he leapt to another handhold, then another, and another, his dark tunic blending into the night sky. Thank the moons there aren’t many torches around here.


                    Then, of course, someone had to light one just as he sprang off a clothesline to a balcony. With a sudden whoosh, bright orange light illuminated the entire storey. Ambarro froze, then bored his fingers into the bricks and climbed underneath the balcony, supporting his weight with nothing but his claws.


                    Ow, ow, ow. Now I know how Diia felt when she snapped them. At least they grow back... I think.


                    After what seemed like an eternity, Coattails stopped at the back end of a dingy little shantytown. A shutter from one of the houses opened and a sharp whistle came from within. Coattails nodded, looking relieved.


                    Ambarro felt like laughing as he vaulted onto the rooftops and waited. Of course the Legion and the Imperial Guardsmen never managed to pick up everything, bumbling about in their gleaming sets of armour. They’d have been spotted well before any deals took place.


                    Coattails seemed nervous. He was patting a bulge in his waistband every ten seconds. Even I can tell that the Sugar is hidden in there. Wait, this scent. He sniffed. Well. Barely a day apart and the smug bastard manages to find me again.


                    A hulking Orc stepped into the shantytown, blood on his trousers and a black look about his face. ‘Bastion,’ he grunted.


                    ‘North,’ came the answer.






                    ‘Serpent. Ach, I grow tired of these word puzzles.’


                    ‘Can’t be too careful, you know,’ Coattails said, raising his hands in a placating gesture. ‘I hear they doubled the bounty on the Snakehead’s… head.’


                    ‘How eloquent,’ the Orc snarled. ‘Here’s the day’s earnings. Candy given out completely, three bottles left over, and still nobody is buying the hookah pipes. Told you they were a fad.’


                    Coattails pulled out a scroll and began to write. ‘Hmm. Sixty wrapped sweets… twenty bottles sold… three bottles remaining… a dozen hookah pipes untouched as usual…’


                    As the two thugs talked, a shadowy figure flitted across the rooftops above. Ambarro beckoned, and it crept over to his side. ‘Candy,’ he whispered as Harrow approached. ‘What do they mean candy? Do skooma dealers sell sweets now?’


                    Harrow shrugged. ‘Let’s have a listen.’


                    ‘Right, are we done here yet? I swear, you’re the slowest inventory-taker I’ve ever seen.’


                    ‘In a bad mood today, are we?’


                    ‘Blew my entire cut on that fiasco of a match. If that Myrmidon knows what’s good for him he’ll have packed his bags and left town already.’


                    ‘Gambling is a bad habit, you know.’


                    ‘Poking fun at my expense is a bad habit,’ the Orc growled. ‘So we done?’


                    ‘Quite. I’ll take over the shift from here, see if I can sell off any more. Got some pure extract straight from Elsweyr this afternoon. One whole pound.’


                    The Orc let out a low whistle. ‘Sure you want to be carrying that around?’


                    Coattails patted his waist again. ‘It’s safer on my person. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy having the blood, sweat and tears of a thousand slaves sitting comfortably above his manhood?’


                    They both laughed uproariously.


                    ‘Right, I’ve still got around twenty Sugardrops in my pouch. I don’t think I’ll have any luck with the traditional bottles, but you never know. See you around the mansion. Adder says the meeting is going to be an hour late tomorrow.’


                    ‘Right.’ The skooma dealers each walked off in one direction.


                    Ambarro could almost hear Harrow’s brow furrowing. ‘Assuming they’re talking about an actual mansion,’ he muttered. ‘That narrows it down to the Plaza District, the Palace District, and the Elven Gardens District…’


                    ‘We can think about that later, yeah? Right now, we need to decide if we all follow one of the marks or split up again.’


                    Harrow fixed Ambarro with a stare that had ‘Sweet Furiya but are you dense’ written all over it.


                    He hated that stare.


                    ‘Of course we’re tailing the Imperial, he’s got all the goods right now. Our best chance of finding additional leads tonight.’


                    ‘But other dealer could be reporting back to wherever this “mansion” is-’


                    ‘The meeting is tomorrow, and an hour late. Let’s go, he’s getting out of sight.’


                    Ambarro paused just long enough to roll his eyes and mouth Harrow’s last sentence, then joined him in creeping across the rooftops.


                    ‘An entire pound of pure Moon Sugar extract tucked in his trousers. That Imperial must be insane. How much is all of it worth? Ten thousand septims? Five thousand?’


                    ‘What, you don’t know?’ Ambarro blurted out. ‘Oh, and his name is Coattails.’


                    Harrow fixed him with the stare again.


                    ‘Never mind.’


                    ‘Is this really all skooma dealers do? Stand around dying torches nodding at people?’


                    ‘I suppose everyone who uses skooma simply knows who sells it by this point. The narcotic is very deeply integrated into Tamriel.’


                    ‘Now that’s just sad.’


                    It was almost ten at night and they’d been squatting on a blocked-up chimney for two hours. They’d both done this so many times during training that they no longer cramped at all, though Ambarro could feel his thighs and ankles beginning to go numb.


                    ‘Activity,’ Harrow said. ‘I think… never mind, it’s just another buyer.’


                    An emaciated Redguard walked up to Coattails, who was leaning on a well in the middle of a Market District square. Even from a distance the two shinobi could see the sagging skin on the addict’s face and arms. He had been big once, possibly even muscled. Now he was a jumble of bones in a leather sack. Harrow shook his head and Ambarro fought the urge to hiss.


                    Another uneventful half-hour passed after the transaction. After fidgeting for a while, Ambarro suddenly spoke.






                    ‘Why do people take that stuff?’


                    Harrow could hear the disquiet in the Po’ Tun’s voice, a far cry from his usual confident, boastful tones.


                    ‘I don’t know everything, Ambarro,’ he said softly. ‘There are many, many papers written on the subject. You should consult those instead.’


                    ‘I’m not one for books. You know that,’ Ambarro sounded almost brittle. ‘Come on, bring me to earth like you always do.’


                    Harrow sighed. ‘Escape, maybe? Like with wine and mead? In Elsweyr they claim that Moon Sugar is a holy substance, but to be honest that sounds like an excuse for debauchery. Maybe some get hooked by curiosity, and find the euphoria too hard to resist, or…’


                    ‘Wait,’ Ambarro said, leaning in to look at the market square. ‘What’s going- oh. Oh, no.’


                    Harrow snapped his attention back to the Imperial, his contemplative gaze now razor-sharp.


                    Children. Nine to ten of them, surrounding the skooma dealer, hands outstretched. The youngest of them was no older than five, the eldest around nine.


                    ‘Candy! Candy! Candy from the candy-man, candy from the candy-man,’ they chanted.


                    ‘All right, you little tykes,’ Coattails chortled, a jovial twinkle in his eyes. ‘But next time, you’ll have to start paying for these, all right?’


                    ‘Sure, candy-man,’ they giggled as brightly-wrapped confectionery fell into their hands. Laughing, they ran back towards their parents, waiting on the other end of the market square.


                    ‘No way in Oblivion,’ Ambarro murmured. ‘How do they not notice?’


                    ‘Moon Sugarcane can be processed into molasses, which acts more mildly and over a greater period of time. It’s probably indistinguishable from the effects of normal sugar in children.’


                    ‘I’m going to go down there and rip his-’


                    ‘Don’t do anything to alert the Adder,’ Harrow clamped a hand on Ambarro’s shoulder and forced him back down. ‘Think! We eliminate the head of the snake, and the body grinds to a halt.’


                    ‘I get it, I get it, but-’


                    Harrow shushed him before his voice got too loud. The children and their completely oblivious parents had left the square, and that was when another person appeared. ‘So,’ Coattails drawled. ‘You learned your lesson about appearing in front of my young customers after all.’


                    The newcomer was an older boy, early in his teenage years, a black eye throbbing on one side of his face, bruised and bloody. He was limping. ‘I… I’m sorry, sir,’ he mumbled. ‘I won’t go scaring the children again.’ His cheeks were completely sunken, as was his eye sockets.


                    ‘No, you won’t,’ Coattails agreed. ‘Glad we got that point across, at least. I hope you’re not here to beg for another piece of “candy from the candy-man”? You should have grown out of that two years ago, my dear boy.’ He walked off to the side, entering the alleyways again, motioning for the boy to follow. He did, and so did Harrow and Ambarro.


                    ‘N-no, sir, I… I don’t want the candy any more, I want the juice. It’s… so much sweeter…’


                    ‘Ah, the juice? You could barely afford it last time, though… and we don’t hand those out for free.’


                    Coattails drew a bottle of skooma from his coat, dangling it tantalisingly in front of the boy’s face. All his strength seemed to drain out at once, and he collapsed to his knees.


                    ‘Oh, please, sir, please, please, just give me a sip, just a sip, just a bit more, give me just a bit more, a drop, a lick, even, just a lick… I’m begging you… I’m begging you, please just give me a bit more…’


                    ‘“Give”, my dear boy? How old are you? You’re almost fourteen now, a man grown. Time to earn your own keep. You know what grown men do, don’t you?’


                    ‘We... we p-p-


                    Pay,’ Coattails finished for him. That's right, grown men like us have to pay for what we want. And I don't see the glow of gold anywhere in your fingers, dear boy.


                    The boy reached inside a pocket with a trembling hand, tears streaming from his face. He pulled out a glinting gold ring, set with a plain garnet. ‘I… I… have… from m-mother… please… just give me more juice…’


                    Coattails clapped his hands together delightedly. ‘My, my, is that what I think it is? You’re a naughty, naughty boy, aren’t you? Oh, well, since you obviously want it so badly – here.’


                    The boy wept tears of joy as he took the bottle and retreated to a darker corner of the alley, disappearing from view. All the two shinobi heard were his slurps. Coattails hummed a little ditty as he resumed his post in the market square.


                    ‘Stay calm.’ Harrow’s face was white, a vein was protruding on his forehead, and he was breathing heavily. ‘Don’t…’


                    In his own rage, he noticed too late that Ambarro was gone. He whirled back to the market square and saw him alight atop a signpost above the skooma dealer, his dagger sliding from his sleeve and murder in his eyes.


                    No! He leapt from the chimney himself, a futile hand outstretched.


                    By the time he landed on the square, it was too late. Coattails fell with a scream, Ambarro’s kunai buried deep in the small of his back. He sank the blade twice more into his spine for good measure, then pulled it out and spat on the corpse.


                    Harrow groaned as he landed beside him. ‘Now you’ve gone and done it.’


                    ‘He deserved worse,’ Ambarro growled, pulling the sack of Moon Sugar from Coattails’ belt.


                    ‘Could you at least have made a cleaner job of it? The entire square heard him.’


                    ‘Nobody was around.’


                    ‘Did you not see the boy who just walked off back there with his skooma?’


                    ‘All he’s hearing right now are his delusions.’


                    ‘I don’t have the energy to argue with you right now. What’s done is done. Where’s the nearest sewer entrance? We need to dispose of the body.’


                    Ambarro was beginning to sober, regret taking the place of anger. ‘There’s one across the streets after you leave the square by the northeast exit. You take the body; I’ll clean up the blood. Harrow, I…’


                    ‘Save the explanations for the Captain,’ Harrow cut him off. ‘Let’s work quickly.’


                    Then an arrow whizzed straight past him, bouncing off the cobblestones. They both froze.


                    People were coming from the alleyway. Armed, and angry-looking people, each one over six feet tall and brutishly muscled. Around ten of them with clubs and hatchets and knives. The weapons looked crude and thuggish, but no less effective.


                    Harrow drew his katana. Ambarro dropped to a crouch, pulling out his kunai again.


                    ‘Don’t even think about it,’ the man in the front said. He dwarfed each of the other men in his group by a head. ‘We have three pairs of bows and arrows trained on you, and I assure you, the eyes behind them are as sharp as they come.’


                    Remembering the whistle that came in the shantytown, Ambarro paled.


                    ‘Huh. Children. Well, it’s not unheard of these days. Well, are you going to be good boys and come along quietly?’


                    ‘Ten of them,’ Ambarro muttered. ‘No worries. We took down at least a dozen in Terse’s tower.’


                    ‘We had narrow stairways and the high ground. This is different. We can’t take them one or two at a time, not here,’ Harrow replied out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Make a diversion. If you still have smoke pellets left-’


                    Ambarro wasn’t listening. He charged straight into the thicket of thugs, leaving Harrow standing in the middle of the deserted square. Brilliant. Now the archers will aim for me since they won’t risk hitting their friends.


                    With no other choice, he willed himself forward into the fray.


                    Ambarro dodged a knife, shoved his kunai into the wrist that was carrying it, then hurled a fireball straight into the middle of the crowd. The men cursed as the explosion singed their legs, but they managed to pat out the flames quite quickly. They’d obviously went up against magic before.


                    Harrow blocked a series of hatchet blows, then felt a cold wind on his back and ducked under a club. The thug holding the hatchet twisted it, trapping his blade between the hatchet’s bit and haft. He twisted again in the opposite direction, tearing the katana out of the boy’s grip.


                    He threw his hands out and lightning sizzled. All it managed was a painful sting. He felt a numbness run up his hands and to his head. I still haven’t recovered enough of my Magicka, he thought, thinking back to the fight with the Bosmeri mage. This isn’t good.


                    An arrow sprouted on his left shoulder, finding the exact spot the mage had sent an ice spear through over a week ago. He’d worked on the wound every night with Regeneration magic, but the tissue still hadn’t healed completely.


                    The thug with the hatchet grinned, then slammed a meaty palm into the feathered shaft of the arrow. The tip came out the other end of Harrow’s shoulder, and his arm fell to the side, dead. Harrow convulsed, a cry of pain escaping his lips.


                    ‘Harrow!’ Ambarro shouted, then stumbled, disoriented, as a hatchet clipped him on the temple. A club thudded into his back, and he rolled forwards to absorb the impact. Three arrows broke on the empty spot he was just standing on. ‘Harrow!’ he shouted again as he retreated under a building. Then he saw the windows. More specifically, the arrows that flitted through the windows like buzzing hornets. ‘The archers are firing from here!’


                    The young elf then did something entirely out of character. He yelled as loudly as he could, bright streaks of lightning swirling around his right arm noisily. In an instant, every thug’s attention was focused on Harrow. He glanced briefly at Ambarro, who was staring at him in amazement.


                    Run, he mouthed.


                    ‘Don’t be stupid!’ Ambarro rammed his entire weight into one of the thugs, knocking him off balance. He pulled his hand back for a thrust. ‘If you think-’


                    Harrow leant forward, caught his wrist as he stabbed, and, using his momentum, spun and flung him bodily over to the wall he was hiding under. Reflexively, he caught a windowsill by his fingers and clambered up the roof. What is he doing?


                    He looked back down at Harrow, who was staring up at him. There was no anger or blame in his silver eyes, only resignation and steely determination. His arm blazed with tendrils of electricity. The thugs surrounded him, wary but still closing in.


                    ‘Go,’ he said, and turned back to his foes.


                    Ambarro was about to drop back down when a trapdoor on the rooftop opened. The three bowmen climbed out on a ladder, biting on knives. Gnashing his teeth, he lit his fingers aflame and sprinted over the tiles.


                    Harrow didn’t even manage to take one of them with him.


                    The lightning around his arm was little more than magical light, and he knew it. The moment he released it, he acted. The thugs flinched as the crackling light enveloped them, and Harrow sprang for his sword. The leader recovered the fastest, and kicked it away into the alleyway.


                    Harrow leapt back and struck at his jaw, producing a satisfying crunch as two of his teeth popped out. Then his wound tore even further and he fell to one knee. A club smashed into his back, and he thudded to the ground headfirst.


                    He pushed himself upright with his uninjured arm, then someone promptly kicked him back down. Twice more he tried to rise, but the kicks kept on coming, leaving imprints in his tunic. The bridge of his nose cracked and he felt it break. He turned over, blood gushing from his nose and shoulder. The last thing he saw was the sole of a boot as it came down on his face.


                    Ambarro reached the bowmen just as the last of the three emerged. He threw a shuriken at him and, by sheer luck, it lodged in his eye. Shrieking, the man fell back down the ladder. Ambarro shot a fireball down the hatch just in case.


                    ‘Fireballs, fireballs, fireballs,’ one of the other thugs sniggered as he jabbed at him. ‘Is that all you can do?’


                    Ambarro somersaulted forward, jamming two fingers into his nostrils and a thumb into his mouth. He conjured another fireball, closing his third eyelid to protect his retinas. The thug’s head exploded.


                    ‘Pretty much,’ he snarled, then hurled one last fireball. The remaining thug charged straight through it, brandishing his knife and guarding his face with his arms. The burst of flame blinded him all the same, and Ambarro stabbed him in the chest.


                    It was then that he noticed that the building was on fire. Wood crumbled, followed by brick as the mortar melted. Taking a deep breath, he leapt to an adjacent rooftop. That was a close one. Then he remembered. Harrow!


                    By the time he reached the market square, which had begun to crawl with watchmen and curious onlookers, neither Harrow nor the men who took him were anywhere to be found. All right, he thought desperately. I can still follow the bloodstains…


                    A section of the building broke off and collapsed into the alleyway, sealing it off. Ambarro stared numbly at the wreckage. He sniffed, trying to pick out Harrow’s familiar scent of incense and parchment, but all he could smell was ash.













5 Comments   |   Sotek and 6 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  August 31, 2018
    Oh no! They have Harrow! o:
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  January 20, 2017
    How old are these kits by now? Nice to be able to catch up with this finally.
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      The Long-Chapper
      How old are these kits by now? Nice to be able to catch up with this finally.
        ·  January 20, 2017
      Still eleven. Their first mission isn't complete yet.
  • Sotek
    Sotek   ·  October 28, 2016
    Harrow's in a spot of bother. Ambarro had better start getting into his game.
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Harrow's in a spot of bother. Ambarro had better start getting into his game.
        ·  October 28, 2016
      Oh, yes he'd better, the dunce.